“Zen Doctrines” (The Healing Company, 2018) is the first EP from Luge, a debuting Moscow artist that wants to bring a touch of eastern influence to the classic sound of Detroit. But… can Zen and Techno work together? Let’s find out!

“The Healing Company” -from now on THC, the label behind this EP’s commercial release-, is a fairly obscure German record company that describes itself as a “strange music label from Frankfurt” in its own official site (a repurposed Tumblr page, containing the very few pieces of information that we could find about it). It’s difficult to grasp whether this overall sense of “opacity” is casual or pretended but, whatever it is, it somehow seems to be a big part of the label’s credo, whose honest approach to the craft of record production -and promotion- is almost unheard of in these days of social media frenzy.

Since Johannes Regnier’s “Sundog”, their first release in 2012, THC (run by Micky Metzmaier, a.k.a. Constantin Sankathi, known as well for its relation to “Downtown Romeo”) has put out a series of expertly curated tracks, strictly available in vinyl format only -save for THC 05 that was available digitally-. They even have an official Bandcamp page where you can’t actually hear any music (!), nor buy file-format releases. Its only purpose is to sell THC’s limited runs of tangible, wax-only music, and their “even more limited edition” handmade artwork versions of it. As such, for the most part, it looks like the main force behind the label is not money, fame or recognition; instead the principle of “art for art’s sake” seems to govern its whole philosophy.

Speaking of ideology and beliefs, “Zen Doctrines” appears to be a perfect fit for the label’s ethics (at least in regards to its title) if we take all of the above into account; and this overall sense of equilibrium and balance is all the more apparent in the music. As we unpack Luge’s EP and put the needle on the record, we can easily notice how its restrained artwork -featuring not much more than a Chōbunsai Eishi print- perfectly complements the smoothness and elegance of the music itself.

 

The first track, “Shinjin Datsuraku” -named, like the other three tracks, after a Zen saying whose literal meaning is “sloughing off of body mind”- starts off with a quintessential combination of  house elements (like 808 beats or 7th chords), later followed by an equally classic, almost offbeat, syncopated bass. And while this blend of the usual “housey” ingredients could appear formulaic at first, the way they all interact is just plain perfect. The first half of the song sounds like a fresh, yet somehow unmodern version of Detroit Techno and Chicago House, with an ageless vibe that could easily feel at home in both forward-thinking and retro-minded DJ sets. The second half of the song introduces some extra sequenced lines and spooky chord-stabs that will beg you to move that booty, taking you from the sofa to the dancefloor. This track alone is definitely worth the price of the whole EP. Yep, it’s THAT good!

But fortunately there’s more. Next in line is a much more risqué cut, that sounds more closely related to the depicted asian lady in the cover. This second track, called “Kaiin Zanmai”, not only brings a Zen approach to the balance of sonic elements, but also to its timbre selection, featuring an unorthodox blend of bubbly synths, 909 beats and acoustic samples of bongos and traditional japanese instruments like Koto and Shamisen. While not as “clubby” and easy on the ear as the first track, the blend of acoustic and analog sounds -and its strange choice of “Songo” styled afrocuban rhythms- gives this song a unique feel with the best qualities of world music and house.

 

The third track -“Muchu Setsumu”- opens with the continuous sound of a shaky, trembling synthesizer pad ,and a four on the floor bassdrum that appears to keep on with the classic Detroit vibe of the first song. But this is just the beginning, as soon an unexpected metallic (flanged) synthline appears, taking you from ’80s Motor City to ’70s Düsseldorf, with a hand-played melody that echoes kraut, space rock and the early electronic sound of European bands like Neu! or Harmonia. It’s a great track (the 2nd best in the EP, bettered only by the first track IMO). However it’s a pity that it doesn’t seem to really take off at any point… if only it was a few minutes longer (and later turned into a fully head-nodding tune) it would’ve been perfect! I love thoughtful productions as much as the next guy, but this one just called for a bit of extra edge in the end, even if it killed the Zen vibe a bit!

The EP concludes with a track that’s more club oriented, featuring a mix of wet ambient sounds and acid house elements (808 beats, 7th chords, 303-ish synths), that sounds like the missing link between 90s Warp and 80s Trax Records, achieving sense of timelessness similar to the first track of the release. If you like Legowelt or Drexciya this 4th cut -called “Sangai Yuishin”- was made for you. The “housey” beats of the first part, later evolve into a more 80s electro/hip-house rhythm in the bridge and ending, giving an extra ghetto-tech layer to the whole track that blends extremely well with the more atmospheric, background elements. Much like the rest of the EP, balanced is the adjective that comes to mind with this tune, but it’s a game of equilibrium that never gets too safe to appear boring or monotonous, more akin to walking tight-rope without a net.

Overall, it’s fair to say this is an excellent debut, and Russian artist Alexander Klopstov (a.k.a. Luge) should be proud, as it left us begging for more. It’s definitely one of the best acidic EPs of the year, and it’s a pity that this release -as well as many others on The Healing Company- seem to be a little too “under the radar” for most people. If you need something classy and elegant in your sets -or your living room- check this one out. It doesn’t disappoint!

You can get this vinyl here.


About the author: José -Pepe- Coca  is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.